C4 Contemporary Art Logo map


future exhibitions
past exhibitions
artists
articles
workshops
membership



store
editions
multiples
books
apparel
postcards

phone number
about
news
subscribe
contact
visiting
sitemap
search

 

susan sontag book cover - on photography

 

Melancholy Objects: Notes 'On Photography'

Susan Sontag's On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) represents a diverse collection of writings, from which I have chosen to use the single theme presented in the essay "Melancholy Objects" (pp.51-82.) to explore the meaning of this essay, with emphasis on the function and implication of such images in mass culture. In particular, I will explore the perceptual mechanisms that are responsible for Sontag's interpretations.

Throughout her essay, Sontag defines the origin of a melancholy object as that which is born of distance. or separation from reality. This distance may be temporal, spatial, political, or cultural. For example, Curtis's photographs of North American Indians provide both temporal and cultural distance that present-day viewers in mainstream North America find remote, and as such, melancholy. Regardless of the type of distance involved, the effect generated is similar. Melancholia, like comedy, is derived from the disparity between that which we know to exist and that which we perceive. Melancholia is commonly experienced as sadness, a sense of remorse, as seen in the main tradition of American photography by Jack Kerouac who speaks (in his introduction to Robert Frank's The Americans) of "the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy... you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin" (p. 66).

Susan Sontag's On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) represents a diverse collection of writings, from which I have chosen to use the single theme presented in the essay "Melancholy Objects" (pp.51-82.) to explore the meaning of this essay, with emphasis on the function and implication of such images in mass culture. In particular, I will explore the perceptual mechanisms that are responsible for Sontag's interpretations.

Throughout her essay, Sontag defines the origin of a melancholy object as that which is born of distance. or separation from reality. This distance may be temporal, spatial, political, or cultural. For example, Curtis's photographs of North American Indians provide both temporal and cultural distance that present-day viewers in mainstream North America find remote, and as such, melancholy. Regardless of the type of distance involved, the effect generated is similar. Melancholia, like comedy, is derived from the disparity between that which we know to exist and that which we perceive. Melancholia is commonly experienced as sadness, a sense of remorse, as seen in the main tradition of American photography by Jack Kerouac who speaks (in his introduction to Robert Frank's The Americans) of "the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy... you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin" (p. 66).

It seems true, then, that when we refer to a melancholy object in photographic terms, we are referring to an image that has succeeded in capturing a perceived separate reality, a reality that has been removed from its original context, and re- contextualized at the mercy of the viewer's psychological make- up. That is, each viewer has his or her own highly individualized reaction to a particular photographic stimulus. This brings up interesting questions when we consider the relationship between the melancholy image and documentary work, an issue to be discussed later.

It is interesting (and we can see now why Sontag considers this) how surrealist notions of beauty interface so elegantly with the theory developed so far in this essay. We should not expect that Sontag wants us to gain equivalent effect from both surrealist art and melancholy photographic imagery. In fact:

That photography is the only art that is natively surreal does not mean, however that is shares the destinies of the official Surrealist movement. On the contrary. Those photographers... consciously influenced by Surrealism count almost as little today as the nineteenth century "pictorial" photographers who copied the look of Beaux- Arts painting (p. 52).

This is due to the fact that the psychological disparity is deposited almost in its entirety in the surrealist image surface, which melancholic images are not necessarily consciously created for this purpose. This disparity, the big gap, in melancholic photographic images occurs on an actively perceptual plane, between viewer and "object". In other words, if the disparity perceived in surrealist art is a passive one, then the disparity perceived in melancholic photographic imagery must be an active one, or (in technologic terms) interactive. Conceptual art as it existed in the late 1960's and early 1970's provides some excellent examples of interactivity. The viewer is presented with an idea, with a minimum of stimulus and becomes inextricably involved with the concept and the presentation of the particular art work.

As the photographic recording is the most perceptually tangible of all manmade recordings (among the "mimetic arts"), it is also the medium best equipped to produce and heighten the sense of melancholia produced in a viewer. It is a most realistic medium and therefore hits us close to home.

However, since our encounter with the photographic medium is, on a grand scale, limited to documenting our own existence, we tend increasingly to see photographs as memory- laden objects, as sentimentalia. Surely this is how we first learn to apprehend and respond to photographic imagery as children, and because of this, we tend to make this association permanent. Perhaps this is why "the photographer is not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents it" (p.67).

Some of these mechanisms are responsible for our responding to documentary work in the way that we do. It elicits reactions because it appears more deeply psychological than it really is. That is, it is not truly a whole record, although it may appear to be. Documentary photography can be quite interesting but, as a tool, the documentary propagandist mode can never really threaten or activate latent ambitions if it is constantly thwarting the present and seeking the past. The documentary photographic record seems to say to us: "This is what happened (in the past).. and this is irreversible as an event." Precisely because photographs are recordings of so thin a slice of time, a very great importance is placed on a split second of temporal microcosm. We do not consider related events or the possibility that what has been recorded is still occurring now.

It is interesting to note that propagandist photographs are frequently backed up by words; the photography is supplemented with another form of communication. Otherwise, such imagery would be seen as completely detached and melancholic. This is why a project such as Wisconsin Death Trip, as Sontag describes it, represents the pinnacle of documentary style and a counterexample to the principles of much documentary work. It is so entirely displaced in time and culture, so distant, that the conceptual core of the book is greatly amplified. It becomes more abstract, a pure phenomenon; even the utilitarian reason for its creation becomes obscured. Perhaps the project could have been made even more interesting if it had made actual use of the original documents which the author, Michael Lesy, reproduced as source material.

We ought to consider precisely what impact photography's "aesthetic indestructability" (p.79) has had, or is having, on the photograph as a melancholic item. Certainly the beauty of an aging photograph heightens, or enhances, the distance created between viewer and object by simply allowing us to understand that the document is growing increasingly more beautiful and frail at each moment. The idea that the photograph is a precious object is driven by the fact that the imagery represented is becoming increasingly precious. Herein lies the mechanism most directly creating sadness, the horrible fear of decay to which human beings respond so powerfully.

Susan Sontag's essay provides an excellent but somewhat incomplete basis for a much needed body of theory still to be developed. It would have been interesting to see Sontag carry her ideas a little further and perhaps draw some conclusions about their relationship to mass culture. I can see many important questions evolving from what is otherwise a mildly interesting but closed case. For example, which other mechanisms might we employ to heighten this "fear of decay"? Perhaps Joel Peter Witkin's work might find itself quite at home in a rewritten version of Sontag's essay. It seems that the impetus for a response to work like Witkin's lies at the core of what Sontag was starting to touch on. Also, what is implied, morally, by our active sentimentality while responding to photography? What difference would be made in a culture that did not take this approach? How are those theoreticians and/ or artists who, in their adult lives, actively deprogram the sentimental response different from the rest of us... or are they? The entire book, On Photography. raises issues of importance to all those concerned with the photographic medium-- educators, critics, art historians, artists, commercial photographers, and students. On Photography has a great breadth but does not realize its potential. On Photography is an interesting, albeit not fully developed critical framework. This book is an articulate start.

- JW Dewdney



about
terms of use
       
directions
contact

C4 Contemporary Art
5647 Hollywood Boulevard 
Los Angeles, CA  90028 
e-mail: info@c4gallery.com